Karen Ross admits that she likes to read nutrition journals for fun. While a bit unconventional, her reading list might not be as unusual as one thinks: the Portola Valley resident has spent much of her life educating cardiac patients on heart-healthy eating as a registered dietitian at local hospitals and at HeartFit for Life, a nonprofit cardiac rehabilitation program that has operated in Palo Alto since 1970.
"(Nutrition) is so interesting," Ross said. "What drives my passion is that eating in a healthful way is really important. We seem to be ready to take a pill — why can't we eat in a more healthful way and move our bodies more?"
Ross said oftentimes reading those journals sparks an idea for a class that she can create and teach to participants at HeartFit.
Most recently, she created a four-part class on plant-based eating.
A lot has changed in nutrition science since she entered the field, Ross, now 79, said.
"We used to think that low-fat diets were the way to go," she said, "until we learned about the dark side of sugar or ultra-processed foods.
"I like cooking … and I love science. In teaching nutrition, I hope that I can share my knowledge about eating in a healthful way."
Ross said she didn't initially start out in nutrition. After receiving a bachelor's degree in institutional management, she decided to pursue an administrative dietetic internship at the University of Washington. During that time, she fell in love with the field, and eventually earned a master's degree in food and nutrition from San Jose State University after relocating to the Bay Area with her husband.
Ross' contributions to the community go beyond her work as a dietitian. The Palo Alto resident was involved in leadership for the national Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionists (SCAN) group, as well as on numerous nonprofit boards, including the Palo Alto Community Fund, Hidden Villa, the East Palo Alto Kids Foundation (EPAK), the Junior League of Palo Alto - Mid Peninsula and the Century Club of California. She also has opened the doors to her home to more than a dozen international Stanford students over the years through the university's Homestay program.
As vice chair and board member of the Senior Coordinating Council, which later became Avenidas, Ross was one of the driving forces behind the concept and implementation of the Lifetimes of Achievement program in 1988.
Ross said she and her late husband, Steve, "both had this value of volunteering."
After joining the Junior League when her children were young, Ross learned the value of giving more of her time to the community.
She said working on boards is rewarding as most members bring different skill sets to help organizations thrive.
Ross is particularly proud of her current work on the board of the East Palo Alto Kids Foundation, which awards grants directly to classroom teachers. The group is working to make schools in East Palo Alto more equitable to those in neighboring Palo Alto by providing much needed support to classrooms.
"Board work has been so rewarding over the years as I have become involved in the missions of the nonprofit boards on which I served," she said.
Read more stories on this year's Lifetimes of Achievement honorees: